No agreement on third tier role

The newly published LGiU report, ‘Should we shed the middle tier?’ was launched at an LGiU/NUT fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat Conference on 25 September 2012.

The report, based on interviews with a selection of leading politicians, researchers and policy makers, showed general agreement that there needs to be something between schools and Westminster – which everyone is calling a third tier.  There was no agreement, however, on is what the role of that third tier should be.

There was consensus that accountability and ensuring compliance with the code on admissions were functions that could not be carried out by schools or central government.    There was also general agreement that local authorities already existed and  were in a good place to carry out these roles – so there is no need to create a new body.

Most contributors agreed that school improvement was best delivered by schools working with other schools, not by a ‘third tier’.  They emphasised, however, that strategic oversight and direction of local education should be independent of local schools.

One contributor,  Jon Coles (Chief Executive Officer, United Learning Trust), argued that councils could only be a real provider of an independent accountability function once, as in housing, they no longer had a significant provision role.  Interestingly enough, at a fringe meeting at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference, a similar view was expressed  by David Laws (recently appointed Minister of State for Schools).

Will local authorities only step up to the mark and properly fulfil their role as the focus for democratic accountability and as the  champions of their local community, if their responsibility as a provider of education is taken away from them?

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No one wants to elbow-out local authorities

The role of Local Authorities in school improvement was the topic for debate in David Law’s first education fringe of the Liberal Democrat Conference on 24 September 2012.  It appears that the panel was set up assuming a major disagreement on the role of local authorities, however, what emerged was a general consensus.

Mr Laws set out three areas where local involvement was required: to provide services for small schools who lack the capacity to provide internally; system functions that need co-ordination that cannot be provided by Westminster or individual schools – such as admissions, place planning and exclusions; and finally the delivery of improvement.

We went on to say Ofsted should identify failure or the risk of failure but what it should not do is intervene, because that would be a conflict of roles, but there was the need for an organisation to intervene for example to replace the headteacher or governing body.  Those are decisions that need a local democratic input.

Cllr Derek Osbourne, Leader of Kingston Council said that the most fragmented education system since Victorian times was being created, that there was a danger that the ball would be dropped and that the critical role of local authorities was to ensure that children and families did not suffer from this fragmentation.

Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning, and former Department for Education officer who worked on the London Challenge project argued that there does need to be change because there are local authorities failing to be effective in tackling underperformance in schools and governing bodies who lack the strength to control a rogue headteacher.

He structured his thoughts round three themes: Sufficiency, Access and Protection, looking for a body to make sure there are enough good places available, not just enough to go round; that there is someone to arbitrate if different schools do different things in relation to admissions and exclusions; and that the vulnerable are supported.  Individual schools could not provide all of these services alone.

Looking forward, Jon Coles did not want the introduction of more layers between the school and Whitehall and that much more could be achieved by schools, and local authorities, working more effectively together, on an equal basis.

No speaker called for a new institution or body to handle local educational interests or for the local authority to be elbowed-out altogether.  What is unclear and upon which there is much less agreement is exactly what the role of the local authority should be.

Freedom and responsibility

If you subscribe to the principle that freedom for individuals and institutions and the devolution of power means that better and more appropriate decisions are made, then why should that principle not hold true for schools?

On 22 September 2012, David Laws, in his first speech to the Liberal Democrat Conference as Education Minister, said: “Greater autonomy is a characteristic of high performing school systems”.

He made it clear that he had confidence in schools – in headteachers, teachers and governors – to do the right thing for their pupils.

He said that every school can, and must, be a good school but that this cannot be achieved by trying to run all schools from Westminster. It requires a partnership with headteachers, teachers and governors; proper funding and innovation in the system; and devolving power and letting go.

He said that he does not wish to micro-manage 25,000 schools from Whitehall, as that “would undermine innovation and undermine informed decisions of heads and teachers”.

However Mr Laws stressed that with freedom there needs to be accountability and described it as ‘freedom to do’ not just ‘freedom from’.

He said he did not want to be heavy handed with schools, but that they had to deliver. Schools spend tax-payers money and are the guardians’ of our children’s education, therefore they should be held to account, and must be able to demonstrate that they are spending our money effectively, improving standards and opportunities for children.

Schools, who say they are keen to be in charge of their own destiny, must accept that with autonomy comes responsibility, and politicians, if they mean what they say about freedom and innovation, must learn to let go.

Stimulating the debate

We are seeking to engage people in the debate around the future role of Local Authorities in education.

The education landscape is changing rapidly and there is much uncertainly about future roles and the relationship between local authorities and schools.

We cannot rely on old models to provide effective solutions for this new environment and we want all stakeholders to have a chance to contribute to this debate.

Earlier this year we carried out a survey to gather the views of Headteachers and Chairs of Governors, as we felt their views were not being adequately heard.

We want to develop the debate and would welcome views of the role of the local authority and its relationship with schools. We are gathering contributions towards a pamphlet to explore these issues which we will publish later in the year.

Please post your comments here.